Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
I’ll admit right out of the gate that I’ve been on a bit of a nostalgia kick lately, something that can probably be blamed on not having seen home since January, and having been in lockdown alone since March. Things may have occasionally come to the ‘rocking out to metal songs sung by Christopher Lee about Charlemagne at 11 pm while washing dishes in llama pajamas’ point of solitary living. Maybe. Either way, when I’m not working or doing something useful, I find myself more and more seeking out the comfortingly old fashioned. It should be acknowledged that most of the cultural products I associate with nostalgia aren’t ‘personally nostalgic’ for me, in the sense that I had or have a contemporary connection (only post-1999 things could be such). One of the biggest parts of this recent obsession has been old radio comedians, mostly Jack Benny and Fred Allen.
Readers of a certain age will probably have at least some memory of Benny, who dominated radio and television from the ‘30s almost until his death in 1974. My mother absolutely and completely despises him, and threatens homicide if I listen to his ‘40s broadcasts in the car, so he played no great role in my early life. Allen, meanwhile, is a largely forgotten figure, mentioned, if at all, as a “comedian’s comedian” and witty satirist who failed to make the transition to television, a contrast to his arch-nemesis. I could, I think rightfully, laud their comedy chops, their innovativeness, and their lasting impact on American popular culture. These certainly all deserve praise, but what has struck me most in listening to and watching their performances in the last few weeks is who they were and who they became.
Jack Benny was in fact Benjamin Kubelsky, the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrant business owners in the suburbs of Chicago. Allen, meanwhile, was really John F. Sullivan, a Massachusetts-born son of Irish Catholic parents who came of age in a deeply dysfunctional and shattered family, something George Burns identified as a common denominator among his generation of comedians (he noted his best friend, Benny, as a rare exception to this pattern). Both men, then, came from groups that were often regarded with hostility in more than one quarter, and Allen suffered the additional handicap of poverty and early experiences with family tragedy. By all rights, they should have expected modest success in life at best, but Vaudeville put them on an entirely new path.
By the time that Benny and Allen entered the Vaudeville circuit (roughly the same time, sharing a birth year), it was well established and well known. Neither man began as a comedian, the Waukegan native was initially one half of a serious piano and violin act, while his counterpart from Cambridge was a monologist who juggled. Through a series of act changes and nearly endless movement around the country, both began careers on radio, and became enduringly successful in that medium. Vaudeville was the perfect stepping stone, a way for people to come into contact with living difference, as well as enjoy live entertainment. And it forced a two-way method of assimilation. The performers, many of whom hailed from immigrant or minority religious roots, had to shape their performances to the tastes of their audiences, while the same audiences came face to face with the very human (and talented) members of groups which they may have despised. For others, seeing these entertainers may have been the first time they saw people of their background in positions of prominence, or gaining widespread acceptance and fame.
Of course, Vaudeville was far from perfect. Racism was rampant, and minority (especially black) performers often found themselves paid less than their white colleagues, denied lodging or the chance to bring their acts to the best venues, and made the butt of harmful stereotypes. Benny and Allen’s use of stereotypes shows just how conscious both men were of the line between the humorous and the pernicious, undoubtedly influenced in some part by their own experiences with discrimination. Allen’s Alley was a popular part of the comedian’s radio program, populated by a cast of caricatured men and women (heavily accented Jewish housewife Mrs. Nussbaum, bellicose Southern senator Beauregard Claghorn, and stoic Northern farmer Titus Moody among others), but “the warmth and good humor with which they were presented made them acceptable even to the most sensitive listeners.”
Rochester, Benny’s famously gravel-voiced valet, was never subservient and often outsmarted his vain and penny-pinching boss but as the ‘40s wore on, Benny insisted on dropping the more offensive stereotypical parts of the character’s makeup (his womanizing, frequent drunkenness, gambling, etc). When a skit in one radio broadcast involved Rochester punching his employer at his behest, and a plethora of Southern stations cut off the show for the offense to the white race, Benny labeled the complaint absurd and refused to apologize. His own character (for the Jack Benny of sound and screen in very few ways represented the real man) did not rely on common negative perceptions of Jewish thrift, but was consciously all-American and areligious.
We rightfully celebrate civil rights leaders, educational campaigners, and activists of all stripes for their efforts to bring more equal opportunity to the American experience, but I think that Vaudeville and a lot of its progeny deserve a share of the glory too. (And we as conservatives can, of course, appreciate that this sprang out of a non-governmental, capitalist enterprise). Often without intending to, they conveyed to everyday Americans that differences in race, religion, and tradition, within a solid civic framework, were not going to produce the ‘downfall of the white race’ or anarchy, but brought much-needed vitality, diversity, and humor to their country. Fred Allen was an open, devout Catholic, unashamed of his beliefs, and thus showed the skeptical that “paptists” could also be pretty great comedians and relatable people (something I, as a Massachusetts-born Catholic, am grateful for). His boxing partner Benny, meanwhile, was an example for the children of all immigrants of the promise of America, that hardwork and dedication really could make good. What better, and more enjoyable, expression of the American ideal is there than that?
*If you’re looking for a place to start, this appearance of Allen on Benny’s television show is great fun.Published in